Education in Ireland

Perspectives on the Irish education system distilled through the crucible of experience,leavened with the empirical wisdom of the perpetual student!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Leadership for Learning

Leadership for learning: re-engineering “mind sets” J West-Burnham

The main purpose of this article is to explore the extent to which language used to talk about leadership in schools is compatible with the idea that leaning is the core purpose of schooling. Sergiovanni (1992) expresses the notion of leadership being encapsulated in “mindscapes or theories of practice”. “Leadership is an attitude that informs behaviour rather than a set of discrete skills…”

If schools are to respond to the fundamental social and economic changes occurring they will have to re-conceptualise leadership. Much of the formulation of leadership today is still couched in 19th century ideas, expressed in terms of individuality, hierarchy and masculine language. This has led to a culture of formal accountability, control and dependency. Schools are essentially archaic in organisational terms, lacking flexibility, adaptability and the potential to be transformed. If a school is to be transformed, a person capable of personal transformation must lead it.

Experience is one of the most powerful determinants of the mindscape of leadership as expressed through a variety of key concepts like head teacher, senior management team etc. The underlying mindscape is one of hierarchy, control and linearity.

There is a tendency to express leadership in terms of “supermanagment”. Leaders are competent in a whole range of tasks; the model of headship is one of omniscience: skilled classroom practitioner plus curriculum leader; plus technical expert, plus all the manifestations associated with being the “figurehead”. The status of the teacher and the role of the national curriculum are informed through this model. In terms of content and delivery the curriculum is predicated as a control culture based on the right answers. The consequence of a hierarchically based mindset for leadership has a number of implications for the implementation of learning in schools: automatic, cohort-related, chronological progression: time-constrained compartmentalisation; assessment based on “right” answers; emphasis on the recording of information.

The emerging picture is one of uniformity, dependence and an implicit definition of learning that is essentially passive.

Schools are moving into an era with the potential to challenge every existing premise on which current notions of leadership and learning are based.

As the self-managing schools reach maturity, the significance attached to institutional leadership will increase. This is a direct function of the prevailing models of accountability, which are personal to the headteacher in terms of contractual and legal issues and specific to the institution in terms of inspection and league tables etc. The quality of decision-making at school level is increasingly important as mistakes and failures are visited directly on the institution and its members.

There is an increasing emphasis being placed on performance. The growing importance attached to results calls into question the view of learning as an iterative process.

The context of exponential social, economic and technological change means that schools as institutions must change too. If education is a function of society and society is changing, then the a priori conditions on which schooling is based has to at least be revisited and re-affirmed.

The world is not linear. It is complex and chaotic. The learning process in the dynamic of the classroom, where every child is a variable and each child is made up of a complex range of variables that determine how it might learn, is unpredictable. School is a demanding place to work because people live in a state of permanent tension between the superficial simplicity of management and the deep complexity of learning and leading.

If schools are not to become asynchronous, then the way a school is led has to become a microcosm of the learning process: in design terminology, form has to follow function. The language used to talk about leadership has to change to reflect a world in which leaders lead and learners learn. Sergiovanni (1996) expresses it thus: “The heart and soul of school culture is what people believe, the assumptions they make about how schools work and what they consider to be true and real”

Theories are mental constructs that we use to describe the reality we wish to create. The following concepts are proposed as 6 elements that contribute in a holistic and interdependent way to an understanding of the nature of leadership>

· Intellectualism
· Artistry
· Spirituality
· Moral confidence
· Subsidiarity and
· Emotional intelligence


Giroux (1988) argues for teachers to be “transformative intellectuals” because it provides a theoretical basis for examining teacher work as a form of intellectual labour. By viewing teachers as intellectuals, we can posit the idea that all human activity involves some form of thinking.

Another dimension to the concept of the “teacher-as-intellectual” is that it is the only way to develop the notion of the “reflective practitioner”.


Leaders need the qualities of vision, creativity and the ability to communicate found in artists.


A personal “world view” is the basis of self-awareness and an essential prerequisite to the process of reflection that is the key to personal learning and so to growth through transformation.

Moral confidence

This term means to act in a way that is consistent with an ethical system over time. Sergiovanni (1996) emphasise the necessity to practice leadership as a form of pedagogy. This means practice what you preach.


Subsidiarity confronts the status of headship. The validity of hierarchy and the notion of delegation are considered to be the bedrock of effective leadership. But central to the concept of Subsidiarity is the notion that trust is willingly surrendered rather than delegated institutions must be restructured so as to reinforce and institutionalise trust.

Emotional intelligence

Relationships between teacher and student, teacher and teacher, parent and teacher etc. are often expressed in emotional terms. Institutions though founded on cognition and rationality nevertheless result in most people remembering their schooling in terms of joy, happiness, fear, and apprehension. The process of transformation that schools will have to go through will probably increase the range and intensity of emotions. The development of emotional intelligence in leaders may be the most complex of all the qualities raised in this article. But imagine the benefits in a school of a head with good interpersonal skills: the ability to handle disputes. Leadership is not domination but the act of persuading people to work towards a common goal.


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